The University of Maine celebrates after their victory over Hartford on Friday, March 9. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)

Before Gary Fifield left his Vermont high school coaching job to take over the University of Southern Maine women’s basketball program in 1987, he took a recruiting trip in February.

“My first (Maine) high school tournament game that I saw Mount View versus Messalonskee. I walked in the Augusta Civic Center and the place was packed,” said Fifield, who compiled a 660-137 record at USM before stepping down in 2015.

“I thought this is unbelievable. It doesn’t happen in other states like this.”

That popularity often translates to the college game. This weekend, while most of the nation is glued to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, March Madness in Maine takes on a different meaning.

Bowdoin College plays Friday night in the NCAA Division III women’s basketball Final Four in Rochester, Minnesota. The University of Maine women’s team heads to Austin, Texas, for a first-round game Saturday against Texas in the NCAA Division I tournament.

The success of women’s basketball teams historically has dwarfed that of men’s teams in the state. The UMaine men’s basketball team has never played in the NCAA tournament, while the school’s women’s team will be playing in the NCAAs for the seventh time.

The popularity shows up in attendance, too. The UMaine men averaged 1,029 fans per game this season at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center. The women’s team drew an average of 1,612.

While the UMaine women have featured international talent in recent years, its success over the years – and the success of other women’s basketball teams in the state – has been typically been built on homegrown players.

“That was always neat to see the University of Maine, with Maine kids, play against other Maine schools with Maine kids,” said Rachel Bouchard, who followed others to UMaine, where she enjoyed an All-American career from 1987-91.

“I think that the first thing (about Maine’s success) starts with tradition. Traditionally, the state of Maine has been a basketball state.”

Beyond Bowdoin and UMaine, and there are other women’s basketball success stories, all at the Division III level.

In the Great Northeast Athletic Conference, where only one of the 13 teams is from Maine, St. Joseph’s won its third straight title this year.

Same with the 10-team Coastal Commonwealth Conference, with the one team from Maine – the University of New England – winning its sixth straight championship.

In the North Atlantic Conference, four of the 10 teams are from Maine, and two of them met in the 2018 championship game, with Husson defeating Maine Maritime, for the Hawks’ third straight championship.

Husson’s roster had 12 Mainers, MMA had 11.

“We’ve been fortunate to get some of the better players from up in the county as well as the eastern Maine area,” said Husson coach Kissy Walker. “When you look at Bowdoin going to the Final Four, and UNE, and St. Joe’s … there are so many Division III-type of players in the state of Maine.”

Not to mention Division I players, including Walker herself. Walker, from Cony High, played for the University of Maine from 1982-86.

In Walker’s senior year, the Black Bears won the Seaboard Conference (now America East Conference) championship, although there was no NCAA berth connected to the title. The Black Bears’ program was just starting to grow.

“We didn’t have a ton of role models,” Walker said.

But Walker became a role model, including for one girl who grew up in Augusta and moved to Farmingdale, attending Hall-Dale High School.

“I watched Kissy Walker and thought, ‘If she can play Division I, maybe I could,’” said Bouchard.

Bouchard became sold on the Black Bears when she attended games in Orono’s Memorial Gymnasium, a.k.a. The Pit.

“The place was rocking. The team would come out of the locker room to the Maine Stein song, and I remember me saying I want to be a part of this,” she said.

Bouchard was a three-time All-American and set the school’s scoring record (2,405 points), a mark surpassed by another Maine high school icon to head to Orono – Cindy Blodgett of Lawrence High, who scored 3,005 points from 1994-1998, and attracted thousands of fans.

Maine’s success not only attracted in-state recruits (like Amy Vachon) but also out-of-state talent, like 6-foot-3 Jamie Cassidy. The trio of Blodgett, Vachon and Cassidy helped the Black Bears to six straight titles.

“You’ve got girls looking up to the Rachel Bouchards, the Cindy Blodgetts and Amy Vachons,” said Tony Hamlin, chairman of the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame. “They showed they can win with Maine girls.”

“And Gary Fifield was winning with Maine girls.”

USM has been to 26th NCAA Division III Tournaments, reaching the Final Four five times, and finished second in the nation three times (1998, 2000, 2006).

Bowdoin (18th NCAA appearances), UNE (nine), Husson (six), Bates (six) St. Joseph’s (four), Maine Maritime (three), UMaine-Farmington (two) and Colby (two) have all been part of the success.

UMaine been the most popular program. In the Blodgett years, thousands packed into Alfond Arena, with an average of 4,846 attending her senior season (1997-98). That number dropped to 3,310 in Vachon’s senior season in 1999-2000, but still ranked 27th nationally among Division I schools.

UMaine continues to be a consistent attendance leader in the America East Conference. Consider that New Hampshire has had strong team the past two years, and averaged 401 last season and 391 this year.

Last week’s America East championship game, played in Bangor, drew a crowd of 3,373, the largest for a title game since Maine last hosted the event in 1998 (3,578).

This current UMaine roster has only three Mainers. None are starters, although Parise Rossignol of Van Buren is is the first guard off the bench and has been one of the team’s leading scorers in the post-eason.

Bouchard said it’s great when UMaine gets Maine players, but even the others get caught up in the atmosphere.

“Students from out of state are surprised is that Maine is a basketball state,” Bouchard said. “Look at women’s team this year. One thing all of those athletes have is the Maine tradition. Doesn’t matter if you’re out of the country or out of state, you understand Maine tradition.”

Curt Smyth, the athletic director and former women’s basketball coach at UNE, said women’s basketball success in this state “speaks to the strength of girls high school basketball in Maine. When I recruited, a good percentage of Maine high school players had toughness and competitiveness you can’t teach … something I found to be a real asset.”

While both boys’ and girls’ games are popular here at the high school level, college men’s teams in Maine have not had the same success at the women, especially in recent years.

The Husson men have earned Division III NCAA berths in six of the past 10 seasons, the last coming in 2017 (although the Hawks are still looking for their first NCAA win).

Bates reached the D-III NCAAs in 2015. Bowdoin has been four times, the last coming in 2008. UMaine-Farmington (2010), St. Joseph’s (2009) and UNE (2009) have all been once to the national D-III tournament. Colby reached the tournament three times in the 1990s, and USM had a nice run of four straight NCAAs (1988-91), reaching the D-III Final Four in 1989.

The University of Maine men’s basketball team has not had a winning season since 2004.

For now, March Madness in the state means women’s basketball programs enjoy success that eludes the men’s teams.

“I can’t put my finger on why,” Smyth said.

Maddie Hasson makes a pass during practice as Coach Adrienne Shibles looks on as the Bowdoin women’s basketball team prepares to play in the NCAA DIvision III Final Four. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.